Student Project Celebrates Women in the Arts and 40 Years of Women at the University

March 16, 2010

March 16, 2010 — In third grade, Danna Thomas' heroines were Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. They were vocalists who gave her goose bumps when they played the infamous "blues notes," the third-year University of Virginia student said.

In fourth grade, she began playing the saxophone, but the jazz instrumentalists she admired were all men. "Traditionally they played the horn instruments," Thomas said.

She went on to play in a summer music institute for aspiring jazz musicians during high school. She was the only female instrumentalist among the 65 members, who included teenagers and adults. The father of a fellow musician told her she was not what "a lead alto sax player is supposed to look like" – meaning a lead alto player should not be a woman, Thomas said. That ran counter her own belief that women are capable of accomplishing anything.

Today, an Echols scholar at U.Va., she plays lead alto sax with the Student Jazz Ensemble. And she combined her interests in feminism and the arts with an interdisciplinary major in arts administration and a minor in Studies in Women and Gender.

While searching the Web one day, she stumbled on "Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts," the first statewide initiative to honor the contributions of women to arts and culture. More than 230 organizations around Virginia are staging "Minds Wide Open" events between March and June.

Her first reaction? "U.Va. needs to participate," she recalled. She soon began laying the groundwork for "Minds Wide Open: U.Va. Celebrates Women in the Arts," to be held March 27 at 1 p.m. in Old Cabell Hall.

"Danna is an outstanding and entrepreneurial student who has created her own interdisciplinary major in arts administration and is using her command of the tools of community building, policymaking and business," said George Sampson, a lecturer who is responsible for launching the arts administration program and is Thomas' adviser for an independent study focused on the event. "By initiating and producing the U.Va.'s portion of the 'Minds Wide Open' celebration, she perfectly illustrates how an understanding of arts administration's skills and philosophies can, in this case, help honor and benefit women artists and the University in general."

Thomas aimed to design a "student-initiated event that brings together all the arts at the University, and extends beyond the traditional arts-related departments to include areas such as Studies of Women and Gender and poetry," she said.

She chose March because it's National Women's History Month. She also noted that 2010 is the 40th anniversary of full coeducation at U.Va., which added a "deeper dimension to the project and brought a focus and special significance to the U.Va. event," she said.

Elizabeth Hutton Turner, U.Va.'s vice provost for the arts, was part of that first group of women to attend the University and applauds Thomas' efforts to commemorate the anniversary and to design a day that "brings into concert" a celebration of women in the arts at the University.

"She is producing something that is great for all of us," Turner said.

In the fall, with the backing of the Student Council's Student Arts Committee and the Arts & Sciences Council, Thomas began recruiting fellow students to work behind the scenes, as well as arts faculty, administrators and students to support and participate in the celebration and to "pay homage to women who have changed the world with their art," Thomas said.

The event is scheduled to include artist performers, gallery exhibits and a reception that features work by members of the University and Charlottesville-area communities.

The lineup includes members of the Free Bridge Quintet, with U.Va. jazz music performance teacher and vocalist Stephanie Nakasian and student musicians; performances by U.Va. dance and drama students; a collaborative performance by representatives from several of U.Va.'s female a capella groups that showcases the power of the female voice; a reading of Maya Angelou's poem, "Phenomenal Woman," by Allyson Boate; and performance by The Webbsters, a  folk band that includes seven females and one male member drawn from first-year undergraduates living in the Webb House residence hall.
Art displays will feature a life-size depiction of the female body by Flora Lark Baily; a work focused on gender and feminist issues by Rachel Callahan; works celebrating the female body by Vi Dong; and an interactive "constellation"-based piece by fourth-year Sarah Wade.

Community participation includes a performance by the Charlottesville Ballet Company and art works that interpret the event theme by fourth-grade girls from Albemarle County.

The event will also showcase faculty and University leaders discussing the 40th anniversary of women attending the University and the historical importance of women in the arts.

The event is the only student-initiated "Minds Wide Open" event to be staged so far in Virginia.

Organizers of the statewide initiative were so impressed with Thomas' proposal for activities on Grounds that they recruited her to jump-start initiatives at other colleges.

Thomas is committed to highlighting women in the arts through other avenues. She was just crowned Miss Virginia Dogwood 2010, and will be competing for the title of Miss Virginia in June, in the hopes of becoming the next Miss America.

"My platform for the Miss Virginia competition is of course, 'Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts,'" she said. The Miss America organization has been celebrating women in the arts since 1935, when the talent portion of competition was introduced.

— By Jane Ford